An interesting reaction against fake news and conspiracy theories comes from Italy, where a new school program attempts to inoculate an entire generation against disinformation by giving them a toolbox of techniques for spotting it.
The initiative is being watched as a kind of pilot project by other European countries, and by origanizations like Facebook that have a fake news problem. Facebook is helping promote the program.
After reading the horrors in Dante’s “Inferno,” Italian students will soon turn to the dangers of the digital age. While juggling math assignments, they’ll also tackle worksheets prepared by reporters from the national broadcaster RAI. And separate from the weekly hour of religion, they will receive a list of what amounts to a new set of Ten Commandments for the digital age.
Among them: Thou shalt not share unverified news; thou shall ask for sources and evidence; thou shall remember that the internet and social networks can be manipulated.
The lessons are part of an extraordinary experiment by the Italian government, in cooperation with leading digital companies including Facebook, to train a generation of students steeped in social media how to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories online.
“Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it,” said Laura Boldrini, the president of the Italian lower house of Parliament, who has spearheaded the project with the Italian Ministry of Education.
“It’s only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies,” said Ms. Boldrini, who is left-leaning but not affiliated with any political party. The initiative will be rolled out in 8,000 high schools across the country starting on Oct. 31.
Great intentions, but it will be very interesting to see how it pans out over the first year. One also wonders how such a program might come across in the US in the current political environment. Conspiracy theorists themselves are quick to label news they do not like as fake news, but would they be suspicious of a school program that attempted to teach children to verify information for themselves? "Do your own research" is a popular refrain - but is often applied backwards, meaning "watch research or propaganda videos created by others". How would those people feel when they children came home from school newly skeptical of their parent's YouTube knowledge?
Facebook was quick to applaud the program. Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook in Italy, Greece and Malta, said on Tuesday that “the program is part of an international effort. Education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal.”
Ms. Boldrini also noted that Facebook was contributing by promoting the initiative through targeted ads to high-school-age users, and she said she hoped that the program, which aimed to show students how their “likes” were monetized and politicized, could become a “pilot program” for Facebook throughout Europe.